Words That Sink Like Stones

When beginning the often arduous process of searching for a new job, it is a critical to spend a certain amount of time and effort thinking about and arranging for references from  prior bosses, colleagues or subordinates.

Even if your departure from your previous employer was amicable, and certainly if it was contentious, approaching people at your old work place and asking them to act as a reference can be emotionally stressful, and sometimes even demeaning. Asking the boss who just terminated you to please, please speak well of you to a prospective new employer is almost always necessary, but never easy.

One of the easiest vehicles for getting around this tough conversation is simply to ask for a reference letter,  and then let things take their course by passing along whatever your reference has written about you to either recruiters, networking contacts or potential employers.

There are several problems with this approach. One, knowing that the written word can create a permanent record and come back to haunt people, employers tend to avoid being honest with any comments that might be perceived negatively, and thus tend toward fulsome, vague or studiously neutral comments. This does no one any good, and does not materially advance your goal of impressing potential employers .

Additionally, everybody on the receiving end of a reference letter assumes that the document will be crammed full of praiseworthy recommendations, or why else would they be passed along. Nobody hands out a letter which highlights your tendency to alienate your colleagues and supervisors on a regular basis.

It is almost universally understood in the workplace that reference letters are nearly useless as accurate reflections of past performance. Unless they are exceedingly well written, specific and fact-based in terms of comments, or otherwise compelling, a letter from a boss or supervisor is  summarily ignored, and the word of praise sink like stones in a pool of indifference.

Any self-respecting recruiting professional or hiring executive will not be satisfied until and unless he or she has an opportunity to speak directly, either face to face or by phone, with your previous supervisor. It is likely also that previous peers and subordinates will be contacted and asked about their relationship with you.

So skip the reference letter, suck it up and devote whatever time you can to speaking with your boss about the subject of references– and as soon as possible after the decision to leave is made, or made for you. It’s important to know early in the job search exactly who can be contacted for a reference, and to “manage”, if that’s possible, what is said about you. This will be a delicate conversation, admittedly, but if there are going to be problems in what people say about you to prospective employers, you will want to know that up front.

If you are leaving voluntarily, and did a good job, there may be some resentment on the part of your supervisor as someone who jumped ship. A meeting with him can be couched as part of an “exit interview” that you initiate to be helpful to him and the firm. At the end of the meeting, after establishing a amicable climate and sharing your wish of improving things,  you slip in a mention about the hope that any future reference checking will be handled positively. Ask if that is a reasonable expectation.

If you have been terminated or are leaving under less than positive circumstances, your supervisor is likely to be somewhat guilty or fearful about potential litigation or other fallout down the road.  As cynical as it may sound, you need to take advantage of this as early as possible so that there can be at least minimal alignment between what he will say and you want said.

You might want the conversation to go something like this:

“We’ve discussed our disagreement around this termination and the reasons for it , but I respect your decision to move on, and accept it. I’m sure you will be willing to assist me going forward when someone calls for a reference. Can we discuss what you might say?”

The concept here is simple- good job search technique involves managing expectations. Smart executives  in transition recognize that prospective employers will want and even demand a conversation with previous supervisors, and they therefore plan accordingly and leave as little as possible to chance.





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